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Terror Management

5 times Disney used the force with Star Wars: The Force Awakens

in Editor Pick/Film & TV Psychology/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by


A long time ago in a blog far far away…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens made one billion dollars at a light speed of 12 parsecs, sorry, days. In doing so, it has further expanded the Disney Empire to a size that would turn Darth Vader’s mask green with envy.

Not before too long, Stars Wars has obliterated Titanic’s record like a Death Star and is currently force choking the life out of Avatar.

Success like this comes along every few years for the movie industry. Depending on what figure you like to use—no. of tickets, prices adjusted for inflation—there’s no doubt Disney has been using the force in its production and marketing strategies.

Here are five simple strategies that must have the Disney execs fist pumping to John William’s force theme…



Disney’s goal was to make a ‘retro’ film. This term basically means they wanted to restore the connection to the original Star Wars trilogy.

Humans in this galaxy reflect on our past with nostalgia. It’s believed the emotions and thoughts associated with nostalgia, help us derive meaning from our existence.

The familiar faces, music, and even similar ideas and scripts has bought them kudos with Star Wars fans who celebrated the return of their favourite film franchise with multiple viewings.

Cultural Icons


Another way of connecting with our past is through cultural icons like Darth Vader and Harrison Ford’s character Han Solo. Director JJ Abrams was clever in introducing the melted mask of Darth Vader—who perished in Return of the Jedi made almost 30 years ago—in promotional trailers, toys, etc.

Cultural icons are believed to help us connect with our society and culture. The Darth Vader mask is symbolic of blockbuster films and the broader entertainment culture of Western society. In the film, the mask is a symbol for the martyred villain, Darth Vader.

Our celebration of such icons is much like a modern-day religion. Recent psychological theories suggest that they can go as far as to make us feel less anxious about death because they help us feel more connected with something bigger and more enduring than ourselves.

Basically, it’s Earth’s alternative to turning into an immortal blue force ghost.

Mystery & Surprise

One of the more recognised events in the Star Wars saga was the reveal in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. At the time of its release in 1980, it was a lot easier to keep this secret to shock the audience.

The modern audience often walks in to a film having watched multiple trailers and read spoilers for films online. Disney was notoriously secretive about the Force Awakens, in particular about keeping the mysterious absence of Mark Hamill’s character, Luke Skywalker, under wraps.

Mystery and surprise are no stranger to successful companies that know how to intrigue their customers. For example, Steve Jobs enjoyed delighting audiences by declaring ‘just one more thing…’ during Apple announcements, before revealing a surprising new product or feature.


Surprise is considered to be one of only four core emotions we experience as humans. So it’s no surprise than when we experience this emotion, we find a special event even more memorable and are more likely to share our experience.



Star Wars branding is so extensive that there’s even a Darth Vader toaster that literally brands each slice of toast with the logo ‘Star Wars’.

As successful as ticket sales have been, Disney have been especially dedicated to exhausting the pull of the familiar Star Wars brand and its beloved original cast.

It has been slapped on a series of spin-off films as well as the obligatory figurines and toy lightsabers. But it extends to canned corn, body wash, runners, band aids, mascara, Star Wars themed parks and bottled water. There’s even a Darth Vader watch for $28,500!

Disney knows that the ticket sales are only bought once or twice. The real game is in the long-term merchandising of their new brand, which is set to make $5 billion in its first year. The brand is currently circulating across the galaxy (or planet) like an army of Stormtroopers.

Customer Focus

As obvious and as boring as it is to highlight the importance of understanding the customer, it’s amazing how easy it is to forget and become overconfident like the evil Emperor from Return of the Jedi.

George Lucas showed us what happens when you indulge in your own creative ideas—as he did with the Star Wars prequel trilogy—instead of listening to the customer, the notoriously obsessive Star Wars fans.

The reviews and fan reaction were never kind. Fans weren’t interested in trade blockades, senate debates, and overly cheesy romance stories.

Although financially successful, the films never reached the cultural significance of his earlier trilogy and are still widely criticised today.

Disney, however, aren’t wedded to artistic integrity. It just wanted to make a crowd pleasing film. This difference in philosophies later had Lucas jest that he felt like he sold his children to ‘white slavers’.

I’m surprised he didn’t say he turned them over to the darkside or, at least Jabba the Hutt. Perhaps Disney also acquired the rights to his Star Wars jokes too?

Mad Max Fury Road is more about death than feminism?

in Editor Pick/Film & TV Psychology by

Mad Max Fury Road has big, bold action scenes and even bigger, bolder themes. What are people talking about online?

There has been a lot of discussion about Mad Max being a story about feminism. However, a random google search of themes suggests we are more interested in the topic of suicide (5.4 million hits the last time I checked). Then there were the other popular categories: sex, death, horror etc.

I checked this on different browsers to avoid any customisation effects caused by the browser I use most of the time.

It’s all about death…really

One of the most intriguing theories I often write about, terror management theory, ties a lot of these themes together. The theory basically suggests that we all unconsciously use defence mechanisms to cope with idea that we are going to die one day.

Terror management theory explains everything from culture, religion, values, rituals, consumer behaviour, and even gender roles.

Here are a few examples of terror management in Mad Max Fury Road:


The characters worship symbols, like steering wheels, vehicles, tattoos, and branding. Terror Management Theory suggests that we use symbols as a means of living on after we die. That is, if we wear or endorse a symbol, we are unconsciously associating ourselves with something that can live on forever.


The captive women are kept ‘pure’ and clean. Terror management theory suggests that all cultures place higher grooming standards on women because they are more involved in reproduction. This theory suggests reproduction is actually a subtle, unconscious reminder of our mortality and relationship with the animal kingdom. We, therefore, try to obscure this association by artificially concealing and modifying our appearance to be less like animals (see waxing, laser treatments, and blow waves).


The chief villain talks of an afterlife. Death anxiety drives beliefs of the afterlife across cultures to reduce this anxiety. The loyal foot soldiers live to die a glorious death. Like suicide bombers, these characters are brainwashed into believing that death is glorious not something to be feared.


All the characters are somewhat suicidal and overtly masculine. They live to drive at high speeds, through storms, and across deserts and are unstoppable in their carnage. They play electric guitars and carry an arsenal of guns. The reinforcement of cultural values, such as masculinity, risk-taking, and violence is a form of symbolism. This, again allows us to feel like we are contributing to a longer living purpose.

The villains and heroes band together like families. The villains engage in controlled breeding and prioritise the bloodlines of their family. By ensuring the survival of our genes, we essentially live on in our offspring. Another form of terror management.

No doubt the film has many powerful themes. But forget the debate about feminism. This film is primarily about death in a big way.

It’s imperative that you read this blog for your health, damn it!

in Media Psychology by

Eat less meat! Stay out of the sun! Get more outdoor exercise! Quit smoking! Drink red wine! Don’t drink too much! Quit sugar! Cut your carbs! Get more sleep! Lose weight! Build muscle! Get lean! Everything in moderation…

Anxious? Depressed? Overwhelmed?

The sheer volume of competing messages in various formats from newspapers, social media, billboards, television and radio make it a daily challenge for advertisers to get their message to the consumer. Therefore it’s a daily challenge for consumers to make sense of sound advice and good ideas as opposed to tricks and deceptions.

To try to attract our attention, advertisers continually bombard us with more extreme images and content to encourage us to engage with their messages.

Health warnings are no different. How many of us have been drawn to and repulsed by graphic cigarette packages which depict cancerous lungs and mouths regardless of whether we smoke or not?

Graphic Australian cigarette packages

In recent years there have been efforts to highlight the dangers of tanning by showing graphic images of surgeons cutting cancers from patients.

They’re all important messages, of course, but do they work?

Research suggests we need to be cautious about trying to shock and scare people into action. For example, in one curious study, researchers had participants rate their intention to buy sunscreen. Prior to rating the sunscreen, each participant was reminded about their mortality. That is, they were reminded that they were going to die one day.


As expected, participants said they were likely to purchase sunscreen presumably because the fear of dying shocked them into being cautious.

However, for a second group of participants the researchers changed it up. After reading about their mortality, participants completed an activity that helped switch their attention and distanced them from their thoughts about dying. After the interruption, they indicated that they were less likely to purchase the same sunscreen.

When we feel threatened our immediate conscious mind does what we expect. We remove ourselves from risks and tell our future selves to behave.

Unfortunately, once the thoughts and fears subside, and the message is no longer salient, we often revert back to how we’ve behaved in the past.

A second study showed that—unconsciously—highlighting a person’s mortality seemed to generate a paradoxical effect, driving the very behaviour that the information should have supressed. That is, participants indicated they were more likely to purchase tanning products.

Why does this happen? Tanning essentially enhances our self-confidence because it improves our appearance. So, unconsciously, our motivation to tan increases as a means to feel better about ourselves after experiencing a brief yet troubling period of musing on our mortality. The researchers have written an interesting article about it here.

What does this say about health messages that continually remind us about our mortality? Could they be unintentionally driving a motivation to take risks?

Although this is just one study and I’m sure the health professionals could call on hundreds if not thousands of studies that show otherwise, this one was intriguing enough to capture my attention.

Do masks make villains scarier?

in Film & TV Psychology by

If you want a villain with impact, try concealing their face. The face is the most personal thing about us. It portrays who we are, reveals our emotions, and helps others anticipate our behaviour.

Filmmakers often use masks to conceal the faces of villains. Perhaps this unsettles us because we struggle to connect with them and find it difficult to identify signs of empathy or humanity.

Often the mask is a subtle depiction of a human skull. Such imagery associated with death and has been shown to unsettle us at an unconscious level.

Do masks make villains scarier? 

The Winter Soldier (Captain America 2)


In Captain America: The Winter Solidier, the primary antagonist, The Winter Soldier, is first shown with his entire face covered, resembling a human skull.

As the story unfolds, we learn that the Winter Soldier is Cap’s best friend, Bucky, who is shown with his eye mask removed, then without a face mask, and finally without dark eye make-up–representing his return to humanity.

We can connect with him more and he is no longer perceived as a villain.

Bane (The Dark Knight Rises)


In The Dark Knight Rises, villain, Bane, wears a gas mask that also closely resembles a human skull. We only get a glimpse of this villain without a mask, when the audience learns of a heroic deed in his past, again showing us the humanity of the villain by allowing us to connect with a normal human face.

Michael Myers (Halloween)


One of the more iconic masks is that of killer, Michael Myers, in the original Halloween. The white face and black eyes are reminiscent of a skull. The only time we see his true face is as a boy and we left imagining what horror might be underneath.

Scarecrow (Batman Begins)


Scarecrows are inherently creepy. They look like rotting corpses on sticks (ok, maybe not the Wizard of Oz one). In Batman Begins, the villain, Jonathan Crane, conceals his face with a mask that exacerbates the hallucinatory drug he gives his victims. This makes the corpse face come to life with horrors, like live maggots.  

Ghostface (Scream)


It is without a doubt that the scream mask in Scream is what makes that film so memorable. Unlike the expressionless mask of Michael Myers, this one portrays a constant state of terror, despair, and anger (it’s weird). Again, a bit like a warped skull.

The unmasking of the villains in this film only reduces the impact of the scares by revealing a couple a teenagers responsible for the crimes.

Two Face (The Dark Knight)


Character, Harvey Dent (The Dark Knight), is portrayed as a clean cut and un-corruptible district attorney. When he first displays his angry streak, his face is partially concealed by shadows, foreshadowing for what he soon becomes.

In his finally transformation, his normal face is juxtaposed against the scarred, skull-like, face. He is literally two-faced.

Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)


As a reverse villain reveal, Silence of the Lambs shows us the evil Hannibal Lecter already unmasked and in prison. As the film progresses, the villain is masked and removed from high security, slowly showing him re-emerging from his temporary hibernation.

Lecter then escapes by concealing himself by literally wearing another man’s face! 

Darth Vader

PicturePerhaps the most iconic villain of all, Darth Vader is a combination of body builder, David Prowse, the baritone vocals of James Earl Jones, and the diabolically evil mask that looks like a black skull.

When his mask is removed, we see a pretty sad looking actor (Sebastian Shaw) who shows us the old, frail, man beneath the machine.

Death anxiety drives Walter White?

in Film & TV Psychology by


What happens when you are diagnosed with a terminal illness? I can’t speak from experience and, perhaps, nor can Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad.

But he had a crack at it with his iconic creation, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer on the first episode of the series. Walter subsequently   uses his intimate knowledge of chemistry to manufacture and sell methamphetamine so that he can leave a nest egg for his family.

How does Walter handle grief?

Many people are familiar with Kubler-Ross‘Five Stage of Grief model where terminal patients experience denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before coming to accept their diagnosis. It would be tempting to suggest that Gilligan used this model to structure the series.

After all, Walter experiences all of these things. When first diagnosed, for example, he points at the doctor’s lab coat–in a daze–and informs the doctor he has mustard on his coat instead of facing the true implications of the diagnosis. Is this denial?

Through various episodes, Walter frantically bargains for his life when he’s held at gunpoint, experiences anger and even rage with almost every character, and deep depression and despair.

But what really seems to drive Walter?

I think his behaviour is more consistent with observations from Terror Management Theory. This theory suggests that even a subtle reference to death or dying can activate defence mechanisms similar to the Kubler-Ross model that help restore feelings of security.

Humans find the concept of death so terrifying that we become especially motivated to engage in activities that make us feel like part of us will live on forever–a form of denial.

For example, aligning with a culture or society means that you are symbolically living on through this culture long after you expire.

How do you align with culture? You are doing it everyday when you wear the same clothes as everyone else, and believe in the same values and identify with your wider culture or sub-culture. That is, you are a part of something bigger that will outlive you.

In particular, Terror Management Theory suggests that the drive to become famous is largely driven by the need to leave a lasting legacy that lives on after you die.

Now, let’s look at Walter. He develops a new identity, Heisenberg, and seems particularly driven throughout the show to ensure his reputation remains intact.

Walter’s reputation as a teacher, husband and father is not enough. He wants to be remembered as an icon. Heisenberg is his legacy.

Consistent with Terror Management Theory, he is motivated to protect this legacy at all costs. He arrogantly and defiantly fights anyone who challenges his status. He becomes enraged whenever a character demeans or underestimates him. This is not just a man who is fed up. This is a man motivated by the terror of death and wants his legacy to live on.

Of course, at the end of it all, he seems to come to terms with who and what he has become. Perhaps this is a form of acceptance?

So, many of the experiences we see in Walter White align with the five stages of grief but Terror Management Theory more eloquently explains these.

Interestingly, Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston have also left a strong legacy in Breaking Bad…

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